Where is lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga?
MANILA, Philippines - On June 20, prominent Bataan lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga left his home in Balanga City to meet with a client in nearby Subic, but never returned and has been missing since.
The next day his car, a red Honda Civic, was found by the police in an isolated area in Zambales, a neigboring province, where a witness claimed he saw someone park the automobile and then board an unidentified white vehicle.
Zuñiga, a respected lawyer in Bataan and secretary of the Philippine Methodist Church (AIM-Pilipinas), is also a former president of the Intergrated Bar of the Philippines-Bataan.
His family thinks that his disappearance could be related either to his work as a lawyer or to his squabble with the United Methodist Church (UMC) that led him and others to form the breakaway AIM-Pilipinas in December 2011.
Zuñiga left the UMC after exposing alleged corruption in the organization.
The 54-year-old Zuñiga was last seen on June 20 at Ocean Park in Subic Freeport. But there is no record of him entering the duty-free zone even if this is a standard requirement for all motor vehicles, the family's lawyer Harry Roque told Rappler.
The witness that informed the police about his car in Zambales could also not provide additional information.
"Right now, the investigators have reached a blank wall," said Roque, a human rights lawyer who has handled similar cases in the past.
Roque explained that the family is now pursuing two theories regarding who may be holding Zuñiga: it has to do either with his work as a lawyer or his position as a church leader.
"In general, the protestants are known to take a very clear stand on social justice, which has prompted the military to brand the whole protestant church as a communist front," he said.
The other option would be for the disappearance to have its origin in some kind of "internal strife within the church itself" but that is less likely, noted the attorney.
Zuñiga's son Juan Francisco supports the second hypothesis and recalled his father told them he had received threats from the UMC, which AIM-Pilipinas broke away from last year.
Juan Francisco, who last saw his dad on June 17 for Father's Day, noted in a phone interview with Rappler that Zuñiga led the breakaway group after he had discovered "corruption and other anomalies" inside the UMC.
NBI task force
The family, Roque and members of AIM-Pilipinas met on Wednesday, July 4 with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who promised to form a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) task force to search for the missing attorney.
De Lima assured the family that the Department of Justice and the NBI will do their best to locate Zuñiga and seek help from the police and the military if needed, but she also noted that there are currently no suspects.
Roque added that "it is important that if he (Zuñiga) is to be recovered at all, there should be a greater consciousness that he is missing, so that if anyone has seen him, they can contact the authorities."
If these cannot be trusted, as in other cases of enforced disappearances, Roque said that the family is considering filing a writ of habeas data for the military to release everything they know about AIM-Pilipinas.
Church and colleagues concerned
On Friday, June 29, the 200-member AIM-Pilipinas asked President Aquino to order security forces to step up the search for Zuñiga.
Church leaders wrote a letter to the President in which they called for the "release and safe return" of Zuñiga, a known defender of the rights of the poor.
"My dad was the best, a good provider for his family, but he also helped other people, especially the poor, and he had strong faith," said his son.
Roque revealed that during their meeting with De Lima, he reminded the Justice Secretary that this is the fourth enforced disappearance reported in 2012 despite the President's promise to prosecute these cases.
"The government must be vigilant not only in their response to enforced disappearances but also cases of extralegal killings" after "the international community has already sent a very clear message that the Philippines needs to do a lot more in protecting and promoting in particular the right to life," he said.
Roque explained that he thinks this is not a kidnap-for-ransom case, so "the family is hoping for the best."
"We are hoping that he will still resurface and be found safe and sound," Roque added. - Rappler.com
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